Arlen Orchard has seen the transportation revolution coming for two decades. As lead counsel of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District beginning in the late 1990s, he witnessed the nonprofit power company’s pioneering work in the field. When he became CEO five years ago, he decided to accelerate that effort, in part by leading the charge for a project called the California Mobility Center.
Even with his belief in the viability of the technologies driving battery-powered autonomous vehicles, Orchard says he was stunned by what he witnessed in China in early April. On an economic development mission with Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and a dozen other elected officials and business leaders, Orchard’s primary task was to tout the Mobility Center. This proposed public-private consortium, announced in January, aims to make the Sacramento region a major global player in the transportation revolution.
While in China, Orchard says he had two epiphanies. The first came while he was in the passenger seat of an autonomous vehicle in Shenzhen. “What was amazing was that the AI technology … saw issues and events way before I did,” he says. “I’m sitting there trying to imagine myself as the driver of that car, but it sees things 150 meters down the road.”
Shenzhen, a city of 12 million people, is notorious for its chaotic downtown traffic. “The Chinese are very polite — nobody honks,” Orchard says. “But the rules of the road are flexible to say the least. Traffic laws are merely suggestions. So I’m feeling like, how can I actually trust this thing to keep me safe?”
During his ride, a motorcycle going the wrong way on a busy one-way street headed directly for him. The car slowed and moved around as the motorcycle zipped by. A delivery truck driver threw open its door; the driverless car braked suddenly — gently — and stopped. Somebody abandoned their car in the middle of a narrow street. “And this autonomous vehicle creeps up, and creeps around it, and safely sneaks by,” he says. Over 30 minutes, he says, the man at the wheel never touched it.
Orchard’s second epiphany came during a visit with an executive of Build Your Dreams Auto, the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles. The city’s fleet of diesel buses and all petroleum-powered taxicabs had been replaced with electric vehicles. “That’s thousands and thousands and thousands of electric vehicles on the streets,” he says. “That was pretty profound for me to see and to fully understand. This is actually doable if we put not only political power but buying power behind it. And it’s not about tomorrow; it’s about today.”
Orchard wants Sacramento to become a major player in the mobility revolution. Those who traveled with him to China — representatives of the City of Sacramento, UC Davis, Sacramento State, Los Rios Community College District, Greater Sacramento Economic Council and Valley Vision — have agreed in principle to contribute to the approximate $80 million cost to get the Mobility Center up and running, with SMUD taking the lead on the initiative.
The California Mobility Center consortium formed when two related efforts joined forces. First, a group of local elected leaders from all levels of government came together on an effort to attract autonomous vehicle technology companies to the region. That effort morphed into the Autonomous Transportation Open Standards Lab, which, operating as a division of the Mobility Center, hopes to become a think-tank and clearinghouse for the industry.
If all goes as planned, ATOS will leverage its proximity to regulators such as the California Air Resources Board and Department of Motor Vehicles to develop an open-source playbook — the “Sacramento Protocol” — that can be replicated in municipalities nationwide. Meg Arnold, a consultant and project manager with Valley Vision (and a Comstock’s editorial board member), believes ATOS and the Sacramento Protocol can serve as a catalyst for a budding industry.
“A key part of any transition to autonomous transportation, in whatever form it ends up taking, is going to involve some kind of cultural comfort level with the way these vehicles are going to be accepted,” Arnold says. Foremost are issues of safety, “societal comfort with getting in a vehicle that is … driving itself,” she says.
ATOS plans to bring pilot projects to the Sacramento region, and is in conversation with a number of autonomous technology developers. They hope to create a consortium where private and public parties develop a shared set of standards and expectations for how autonomous vehicles will move through a city. How and to what extent will vehicles communicate with each other and some sort of the city-managed hub? What are a municipality’s expectations regarding autonomous operators sharing information about passengers and routes?
“Standards still need to be determined in this emerging sector,” Arnold says. “We see an opportunity to help companies advance those standards, and frankly to influence them in ways that make sure they’re taking fully into account the communities in which they operate.”
While the ATOS effort was underway, Barry Broome, the CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, was working with Highlands Power, a local startup that designed a revolutionary carbon-fiber electric vehicle motor that eliminates the need for a gearbox. Broome recalls that Highlands demonstrated a prototype of its technology that he found “amazing,” and the Highlands team introduced him to the folks that built its prototype, PEM Motion. Broome suggested that PEM launch a location in the Sacramento region, and the company seized the opportunity.
Broome intends for the Mobility Center to allow Sacramento to monetize policy and technology innovations launched in California. He points out that laws written in Sacramento, such as high-mileage requirements, cause car-makers worldwide to create new products, while innovations hatched in Silicon Valley gave birth to a new industry — but the jobs so far are not coming.
“Too often we lead on an idea, but then we’ve let other people dominate the sector for jobs,” Broome says. “The electric vehicle is a great example. We’ve totally dominated, but the jobs are in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.”
Spreading the Wealth
SMUD spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham says the California Mobility Center is scheduled to break ground before the end of this year, but the location and the size of the workforce are still to be determined. The goal of the center is to bring electric transportation innovation to the Sacramento region to meet a growing need for new vehicle technologies and supporting infrastructure. Two advisory teams, one made up of policy leaders, the other of industry leaders, will help guide operations.
In addition to ATOS’s standards testing project, the Mobility Center will focus on three areas. One division, aided by PEM Motion, will work on prototyping, testing, manufacturing and research, and another on business model and policy validation. A third will focus on workforce development.
Broome envisions the institute providing best-in-class prototyping and engineering services, making the region attractive for new-mobility entrepreneurs and a manufacturing center for vehicles, batteries and other components.
“This is very much an applied electrical engineering play around providing hardware services to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley companies,” Broome says, “with hopes that when they’re pushed out by price, instead of going to Texas or Utah, they’ll migrate to Sacramento — not just for cost relief from the Bay Area, but also to get services from the Mobility Center.”
The UC Davis Mobility Institute is recognized as a leading policy think tank on the future of transportation; the new center could provide jobs to its graduates. Davis and Sac State have respected engineering schools, and some of the biggest winners could be graduates of the four community colleges in the Los Rios district, American River, Cosumnes River, Folsom Lake and Sacramento City. Many of these students could receive technical training that results in a certificate. These programs could provide talent to an automotive manufacturing cluster, and American River already offers a 34-week course in Alternative Fuels and Green Vehicle Technology.
“We’re focused on making sure the Mobility Center creates inclusive opportunities,” Orchard says. “We’re really looking to build a pipeline for folks from our disadvantaged communities to these jobs of the future. Obviously that’s a priority of the mayor, and frankly a priority of SMUD — to make sure that whatever value we bring to the community, we’re bringing it to all of our customers and all of our neighborhoods.”
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It is tempting to employ any number of puns when considering California’s transportation future: The state is at a crossroads, its policies could run out of gas, dangerous curves lie ahead.